Neville Cardus, the great music critic and cricket correspondent provided a detailed review of the Bliss 75th Birthday Concert for the Manchester Guardian (3 August 1966). He began by complimenting the appearance of the composer – ‘looking much too young and military to carry his snow-white hair.’ Strangely for Cardus, he makes an error when he points out that the premiere of Bliss’ Piano Concerto in B flat was in Boston, USA. In fact, it was at the Carnegie Hall on 10 June 1939 during the New York World’s Fair. He is correct in stating that Solomon was the ‘incomparable’ soloist. He remarks that few performances of this work ‘have come it way’ despite it being ‘an excellent example of its kind: a nineteenth-century virtuoso manner adapted to the ways of musical thinking considered quite avant-garde during the 1930s in this country.’ Although hardly at the cutting edge of ‘modern’ music when it was first performed, Cardus is right in noting ‘a certain astringency added to the romantic textures and pianistic gestures.’
Neville Cardus contextualises Bliss’s place in the musical hierarchy. He considers that ‘Sir Arthur took a prominent part in the 1920s movement towards the liberation of English music from the German captivity.’ This freedom was apparent in such pre-war works as Rout, Madam Noy, Conversations and Mêlée Fantastique. Later music tended to be more conservative with an emphasis on a post-Elgarian ‘ceremonial style’ in works such as the Colour Symphony and his duties as Master of the Queen’s music.
Cardus mentions Goossens and Walton as having paved the way for Britten and other followers and fellow travellers.’ I disagree with him when he suggests that Bliss ‘and his contemporaries were the driving force of the real Renaissance of our music – not Parry, Stanford and company.’ The trajectories of this Renaissance can be pushed back before these two Victorian/Edwardian composers and coming forward, well beyond Britten. What Parry and Stanford achieved was the education of a large and diverse group of pupils that had confidence to develop their own styles free from the shackles of European influence and equal to it. P&S also wrote some splendid music into the bargain.
When I first investigated this 75th Birthday Concert, I was a little surprised by the choice of work which is hardly representative of Bliss’ achievement. Neville Cardus picked up on this: ‘The BBC might have honoured Sir Arthur’s birthday and his contributing to and influence on our music by including in the Promenade season at least one other of his works – say Morning Heroes or the ‘Colour’ Symphony. On the other hand, Cardus notes that the narrator in Morning Heroes ‘puts me off the musical track.’ He can never ‘enjoy talking whenever there is music around.’
The critic was seriously impressed by the performance of the concerto. He writes ‘No English composer has produced a concerto as challenging as this one to a pianist possessing some largeness of manner and technique. John Ogden obviously revelled in the opportunities given to him so generously. He is wonderfully quick to absorb in his imagination and his fingers an unfamiliar composition.’ Cardus continues: ‘With Sir Arthur in easy command of the BBC orchestra, Ogdon not only did justice to the concerto; he added to its tonal statue and also modulated sensitivity to the concertante intimacy of the solo exposition in the first movement. As felicitous was his modest of melody and touch during the [middle movement] Adagietto.’ It seemed to Cardus that John Ogdon would keep this work in his repertory: this was not to be.
Clearly Neville Cardus did not stay until the end of the concert. He concludes his review with ‘The miscellaneous was evening closed by the ‘Pastoral’ symphony, [Beethoven] of which I am sure that Sir Malcolm Sargent and the orchestra gave an admirable account.’